I was reading an article in La Chiesa, an Italian newspaper, about what seems like a rather irrelevant or silly thing for us today: the formation of the Czeck-Hussite Church. What could be farther from our own experience? Ironically, not much. It deals with how this piece was written on that schism to reflect on the situation today in Austria. There is a growing group of about 300 priests in Austria who are making very similar radical demands against the Church – things like womens’ ordination, abolition of priestly celibacy, and theological concessions of far greater magnitude. The point of this article was that a similar thing happened in Czeckoslovakia, shortly after its creation, that mirrors the crisis in Austria. The papal nuncio acted swiftly and decisively in calling it a schism and excommunicating the leaders. It led to a separate church, but the radical group gained members only for about a 10 year interval. They went from about 500,000 to about 950,000 at their peak. Today? They have about 90,000.
The message to get from this? There are primarily two. The nuncio acted swiftly, yes, after analyzing the situation and making appropriate concessions. He realized that one cause of the rebellion was the influence of Czeck nationalism. The call of the rebels was for a more Czeck church leadership. So he gave them a very holy Czeck archbishop, whom they nevertheless rejected because he did not share their views. But that move served to save many from going into schism, by responding swiftly and effectively in defusing “nationalist” objections to the Church. The second, and I think most important, was the realization that what led the priests into rebellion was insufficient priestly formation in seminary. The seminaries had not given the average priest the tools to face up to the nationalist or liberal theological currents of their time. So, his next move was to reform the seminaries. And it worked for the next 50-80 years.
How does this apply to Austria? While I can’t speak for the Church’s mode of action here, I certainly think that one significant problem in the midst of all of this is priestly formation. The sex abuse crisis today was precipitated by bad priestly formation in the 50s and before. The rebellion and heresy of priests today, such as in Austria, is only a symptom of bad priestly formation. If you understood Catholic teaching well and had received appropriate human, intellectual, and spiritual formation, an attempt to reform the Church charitably would not lead to schism or heresy. It’s the clear difference between John Leiden and Catherine of Siena. One took over a city to become its prophet-king by military force, where the other used the power of persuasion and holiness to bring the Pope, her Christ-on-earth, back to Rome and reform the Church. One rejected Church structures themselves as sin, one rejected sin in Church structures. Stupid priests and stupid reformers do much more harm than good.
As a member of an Order that prides itself on its involvement in priestly formation, and in the spirit of St. Theresa of Avila, I can only say:
God save us from stupid priests!
Yours in Christ,
Br. James Dominic, OP
PS – As a bit of a plug, you can contribute to ending the plague of priest stupidity today by donating a small amount to either our own Dominican formation or to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which provides much-needed scholarships for Eastern Catholic clergy in places in the Near East (Egypt, Syria, etc.). Almsgiving is a great Lenten practice!